Sunday, October 27, 2013

Changing the leopard’s spots

I remember reading, some time ago, about a guy who had a large South American python. Not one of our Australian carpet snakes but one of those big ones that make ours look like garden worms. It turns out that he raised it from a baby and they got on like a house on fire: not sure how they did walkies and that sort of thing but they were friends. That is, until one night he woke up with the beast wrapped around him and it’s jaws over the top of his head. It seems that no matter what he thought his relationship was with his friend, it was still a python. And I guess, you should always remember to feed your pets: otherwise they get annoyed.

A question I get asked a lot is whether or not it is possible to change someone’s personality. This is often in the context of a relationship or at work, and especially about those in leadership positions, where someone’s behaviour is posing problems. And mostly it is of the type, ‘Please can you sprinkle some fairy dust on them and make them into somebody else’. Fair question and often asked in a moment of quiet desperation, of the Thoreau kind.

By definition personality is tricky to shift, given it is a set of enduring traits. These traits define patterns of behavioural and emotional responses to events. The sticking point is the word ‘enduring’: they are rather persistent. So the short answer is that it often takes something impressively confronting, even catastrophic, to change a strong personality trait. As the old joke goes, How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? The answer is ‘one’ but the light bulb has to want to change.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

Changing a personality trait is not as easy as changing a single behaviour or even several behaviours. So, for example, a person might have a tendency towards being what in the Big 5 is called Conscientiousness. People high on this trait like to be planned, make lists, tend to take great care about things, like facts and are systematic. A person, like me, who is low on this trait is the opposite. So, I might be able to force myself to make plans and lists, to use spread sheets and Gantt charts, but I’d rather not. It is stressful for me. But it is unlikely that I would ever become high on the trait as I am likely to avoid work or relationships where I would be required to be high on Conscientiousness. And I am unlikely to ever change from being an extravert. But I can curb my tendency to ‘think out loud’ in meetings, for example, and to recognise that I need to give introverts time to process information before expecting an answer.

We can modify traits when they are more marginal and when desire is strong. Under stress, however, there is a tendency to revert back to our previous predilections. It can be hard work changing ones traits, being aware all the time of what we are doing, catching ourselves so that we don’t slip and then applying the new behaviour. If the behaviour becomes a habit then we are well on the way to permanent change. So, yes, it’s possible to tinker around the edges, which is what happens with the massive industry around personality profiling, coaching and leadership programs.

One of the more difficult tasks I get as a psychologist, and the most frustrating, is working with people who don’t understand the impact they have on people around them. Because they have no insight into their own personality, they don’t have any chance of knowing what they are doing. When we are confronted by our real ‘self’ humans have a tendency to get defensive, to protect the ego. So getting insight can be a difficult business. It takes a rather special event to get beyond this barrier and it can be quote painful. People who have had personality disorders throughout their life and who eventually start to get insight later in life can be more prone to turn to alcohol or even self-harm when they realise the havoc they have created in their life was of their own making.

So, what can you do: about that over-controlling person at work or in a relationship:  with someone who cannot plan at all and is always in chaos: when your boss is agreeable (another Big 5 trait) that he avoids making decisions because he is too busy socialising; about the extrovert who will never stop talking and seems to change their mind in the middle of a conversation; to help someone who is so closed to new experiences that they cannot see the value of new innovations and creative staff; and about the manipulative bully?

The answer is, not a great deal other than quietly lead them to understanding the impact of their behaviour if you have a close relationship with them, or to confront them head on. Both of these approaches can be problematic and occasionally may work. In the end, though, the motivation to change has to be present and even then the task may not be easy. 

Having said that, the recent work on training the brain and evidence-based psychological methods have been shown to work, where the person recognises the need to change and are prepared to put in the work.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Belling the Cat: When integrity and fear meet

I recently asked a group of young parents to pose a moral dilemma to their children aged between the ages of 6 and 8 or so. Not a scientific experiment you understand but curious nonetheless and I kind of knew the answer. The dilemma was around whether or not a teacher should give a certain child a negative school report. The child had been very naughty, was not doing her reading assignments and so on. The problem was that the child was related closely to a very powerful person who could cause the teacher to lose her job or at least get into trouble. What should the child do?

Well, the overwhelming response from 9 kids was that she should tell the truth. It is a rather well known that kids have a rather well developed moral compass at a relatively young age for a lot of reasons. Not least of these is that they have learned good moral responses from reading stories and parents tend to be pretty good about reinforcing the right and wrong message.

However, there is something that happens when we get to adulthood. Somehow the moral GPS gets a bit off course. This seems particularly true, although not exclusive, to organisational life.

It is fascinating to me that many organisations, without a hint of irony, flash words around their websites and strategic plans like integrity, honesty, doing the right thing, values, truth and so on from the Dictionary of Ethics smorgasbord. Yet, when it comes to telling the boss that he or she has a zit on their nose, or even worse, criticising the behaviour of senior people or the organisation itself as a whole, the powerful wind of self-interest, of fear, sweeps all before it.

There are two aspects to this of course. The first is that many managers are not very good at accepting criticism. To be fair, this is a normal human condition. We are all narcissistic to a degree and being criticised is a hard thing to accept. But one might think that being able to be self-reflective is a pre-requisite to being in a management role. Even more important, at least from an organisational point of view, is the need to improve organisational effectiveness for survival and to prevent disaster.

What can happen, and happens more often than it should, is that managers shift from defensiveness to attack and divert the criticism elsewhere: often towards the victims (if there are any) or the conveyer of the message. Again this is normal human behaviour but one would expect a higher level of sophistication among, particularly, senior managers. In fact, emotional maturity should be a pre-requisite. Interestingly this is not a trait seen in the emotional intelligence literature. But I digress. There are other defence mechanisms of course including denial, rationalisation, and so on, but projection is by far the most commonly used not just by managers but by people in everyday life.

The second issue has to do with our willingness to state what may well not be received well. This requires a think called courage. And, as one might expect is part of the moral menu of many organisations. Now, in the wrong environment (see above) this can be a real difficulty and who could blame one for not being prepared to speak up? Interesting dilemma and I wonder what the kids would say. The other side to the coin is why would one want to work in an organisation that didn’t stick to its values, that was a moral vacuum and where there was no willingness to learn and improve. Who wants to live in the organisational equivalent of a gulag?

Having been an organisational consultant for many years the moral dimension of what we do can be very confronting too. Sometimes, and inevitably, one is placed in a position where deciding to take on a particular piece of work or reporting issues that will not be received well can challenge one’s personal integrity and values. After all, one has to work. Now at the end of my working life I am less concerned about this than I used to be and am rather more inclined to walk away or to bell the cat if required than I was when I was much younger-and hungrier. It is naturally and normally human to think about one’s own survival.

The biggie of course is where is the line on compromising oneself? On compromising one’s organisation? Elephants in the room can be pretty scary fellows. It can be really ugly when you are the source of the elephant.

But as parents, what would we advise our children to do when faced with a moral dilemma or how to deal with criticism? Seems a reasonable benchmark to me if we are going to overcome our tendency to narcissism and self-interest.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Failing mental models of management and leadership

I’ve never been much of a fan of Senge and his book the Fifth Discipline largely because he didn’t attribute much of his work to some important non-Americans such as Russell Ackoff, and Fred Emery, among others. However, he simplified the notion that people are largely habitual in the way they think with his idea of ‘mental models’. It does seem the case that humans get a way of behaving in their head and then have a lot of trouble changing it, even if what they are doing is not working for them. Sometimes people don’t even see that they are the cause of the problem: the trees are definitely in the way of seeing the forest.

It’s pretty amazing that many CEOs, senior executives and managers all the way down the food chain don’t understand some fundamental things they need to do to improve employee engagement. This, despite the overwhelming evidence that low engagement results in low productivity, poorer quality output and, where it is an issue, poor safety behaviour. For those more familiar with the term employee engagement is similar to job satisfaction and both share similar factors in the various measurement tools used to evaluate them.

I’ve come across a few organisations in the past few months where ‘management’ consistently fail to engage their direct reports, their ‘team’, in the basic activities of: sharing purpose and making sure everyone is singing from the same song sheet; shared strategic planning; shared review of operations and achievement of the plan; participative decision-making; continuous improvement; and problem solving. All of these are, along with the meeting of a bunch of fundamental human needs, are known to increase employee engagement and, its sequelae.

It seems that this failure of the basics of management occurs for a number of reasons. The first is lack of knowledge: the manager simply does not know anything about management and doesn’t know what to do. This is the classic unconscious incompetence. The manager manages simply bumbles along using a mental model they got from somewhere, usually watching someone else who managed them. There has been no effort to learn anything about management. The second is owning a mental model that was obtained from an airport book shelf and that is now used for every situation. Mostly the model is incomplete and the recipe is untested and tried. But, the manager persists, believing that they have the right formula for success. This might be command and control or micro-management, for example. The opposite turns out to be true. In effect the mental model is poor. Next we have the person who just happens to believe that humans are rather pathetic and that leaders are born and not made. They have a divine right to lead and to be lord of their domain, all powerful. This is one of a number of personality flaws that often dominate the thinking of some managers and drive their behaviour. Then there is the psychopath in its various forms, where the motive is personal gain, the exaggeration of self, self-aggrandisement, power, and the manipulation of the pawns on their personal chessboard.

In all cases, the science of human behaviour and what little management science there is ignored or, at best, simply not accessed due to ignorance. What is more interesting is that these problems can be pointed out when there is a crisis relating to performance, staff turnover, or an employee discontent but there is no effort to change. More often than not the manager or CEO looks like a kangaroo caught in the headlights.

The science of managing people needs to be promoted and management needs to be seen as a skill just like medicine, engineering or other professions. Otherwise it cannot ever be considered as a profession in its own right. Thus far it is an occupation where many simply follow the edicts of their personality. Many managers simply are not aware that what they are doing is counterproductive.